NSF PR 02-31- April 29, 2002
From Arts to Neurobiology - Versatile Duke Scientist
Chosen for NSF Waterman Award
The National Science Foundation has given its highest
honor for a young researcher to a man of many dimensions.
Erich Jarvis is a performing artist turned scientist.
He overcame economic disadvantage as a child growing
up in New York City's Harlem to become a top young
researcher at Duke University -- one of only 52 African
American men out of more than 4,300 biologists who
received Ph.Ds. in 1995. Despite his parents' divorce
and his father's intermittent homelessness, Jarvis
claimed from his parents and other family members
their best qualities - education, creativity, drive,
sensitivity and compassion - and turned it to his
own advantage as he developed into one of the nation's
most promising young scientific minds.
Today named to receive the National Science Foundation's
(NSF) Alan T. Waterman Award, NSF's highest honor
for a young scientist or engineer, Jarvis was chosen
for his individual achievements and leadership in
studying the brain system of vocal learning birds.
Jarvis will receive the Waterman Award on May 7 in
Washington, D.C.. He is the 27th recipient
of the award since it was created in 1975 by Congress
to commemorate NSF's 25th anniversary.
The award is named after NSF's first director. As
part of the Waterman honor, Jarvis will receive a
$500,000 grant to continue his research.
"Erich Jarvis is truly a gem," said NSF Director Rita
Colwell. "He is the epitome of the modern scientist,
crossing between disciplines and ideas, and blending
his enormous sense of creativity learned at a very
young age and applying it to get the very most from
Whether garnering cheers at his 1983 high school graduation
dance performance (at the New York High School for
the Performing Arts) for doing Soviet-style lifts
in a War and Discord pas de deux, or engendering the
more sedate affirmations from colleagues for his studies
of vocal learning in songbirds, Jarvis has extraordinary
curiosity on multiple levels, a quality that drives
At Duke, while conducting his groundbreaking research
into how birds may have similar brain structures to
generate song that humans use in learned vocalizations,
Jarvis discovered "how little scientists know about
the language-fostering structures in our own brains,"
he said in an article for Duke University Magazine.
His curiosity, he said, was tempered by ethical constraints
preventing scientists from rigorously studying brain
functions of humans as rigorously as those of animals.
So now he is taking his interest in birds a step further,
investigating, through an NSF grant, why so few birds
and other animals have vocal learning capabilities,
and what brain structures they have. He is also researching
the basal ganglia pathway loop in songbirds' learned
vocal communication through a National Institute of
Mental Health grant. Diseases of the basal ganglia
in humans that are known include Parkinson's, depression,
chronic anxiety and some speech pathologies.
Jarvis' interest has even extended into cosmology,
and he speculates about evolution on other planets,
and the potential for finding the same "physical constants"
on other planets as we have on Earth.
Where does Jarvis get his inspiration?
"I combined the factors of my mother instilling in
me to do something for the greater good of mankind,
and my father (who had musical talent) adding his
desire to gain knowledge, into one decision to become
a scientist," Jarvis said in a National Institute
of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) profile. NIGMS
funded Jarvis' undergraduate and graduate studies
at New York City's Hunter College and Rockefeller
University. At Rockefeller, he focused his Ph.D. work
on molecular neurobiology and animal behavior.
"I knew when I was leaving high school that I wanted
to do something with a larger impact on the world,
and science provided the creativity I had learned
through my arts training and also the rigor and discipline,"
"The studies of songbirds were kind of a natural outgrowth,
I guess. They definitely interested me because they
have more complicated learning systems. Birds that
imitate behaviors I felt would be good to study brain
function," he said.
During his advanced scientific training, Jarvis once
explained that like a dancer, he would "choreograph
things in order to invent experiments" and "be disciplined
to practice over and over again until the experiment
was done right."
Jarvis is doing a lot right.